It’s no surprise that Super Bowl ads are a big deal. As the most widely televised sporting event in the United States, the Super Bowl is a great way to get a LOT of eyes on your brand. When done right, a TV ad can be extremely effective in widening your scope and engaging new potential customers. When done wrong, they can make your brand seem tone deaf (especially after a year of hardships for so many), nonsensical, or money-grubbing.
And when the going rate for a 30 second spot starts at about $5.5 million, the pressure is on for advertisers and marketing specialists to make sure they don’t miss the mark.
What makes a great campaign?
I’m a huge Super Bowl ads fan. I’m not going to lie, it’s the main reason I watch (other than the halftime show). It’s always fascinated me to see what creative ideas are brought forth, as it seems to usually set the tone for the rest of the year in terms of traditional advertising. Plus, as digital marketers, there’s a lot we can learn by studying these ads and how they make us feel.
Obviously, top-notch creative is key for producing an excellent ad: professional, topic-relevant visuals, a well-written script, good acting, and an overall clear branded message. But it’s also more than that.
In 2021, a single marketing channel or ad can’t stand alone in making back a profitable ROI.
In other words, you can’t blow your entire annual marketing budget on a one-time opportunity or even one channel exclusively. (What’s that saying about having all your eggs in one basket?) You have to create multiple touch points within the digital space in order to engage with the user on a meaningful level. This is especially true with ones that drive the viewer to collateral or content you own, and therefore have more robust capabilities of tracking data and overall efficacy (e.g., your website 😇).
For example, although the Fiverr ad for Super Bowl 55 was nothing special for me, they did a great job of creating these multiple touch points afterwards.
See relevant paid advertising:
When you land on the website, you’re served with two obvious and immediate callbacks.
And what’s more, I can only guess that over the next few days that I’m going to start seeing paid Fiverr ads on my social feeds and on the Google display network for visiting this website.
All of this is a great way to involve the user in your brand story. Make your ad enticing enough that they Google you to learn more. Then make sure you show up first. Then make sure that their landing experience is both engaging AND familiar. Then follow them around afterwards—if you can 😉
The Best Super Bowl Ads of 2021
Below are my top 10 ads from the 2021 Super Bowl, and a little bit about why I think they’re so effective (or what they could have done even better).
This commercial was one of the first ads to appear during the game; and I knew immediately it would be my favorite.
It checks all the boxes for me. They effectively and immediately establish their brand (“who we are,”), show a variety of different use cases of their products (“what we do”), and they have a clear, strong theme throughout: Defy Logic.
Even though we only see 1-2 second snippets of each of the people who use their products, within that short time we see clearly defined purposes for each, the wide scope of capabilities of their products, and how we ourselves might fit into that same group.
Takeaway: Brandish your brand boldly, and show pride in what you do by conveying the impact of your products.
General Motors (GM)
Historically, the most popular approach to a Super Bowl ad is humor. When done right, it’s catchy and memorable. However, the way I see it, oftentimes the concepts get too watered down between the marketing team’s proposed idea and C-Suite approval. Either they’re too expensive, too taboo, or simply not in their personal taste. It’s clear that GM did not have this issue.
This ad perfectly utilized their celebrity cameo by playing up their biggest strengths. Something about Will Ferrell playing a crazed conspiracy theorist with strong thoughts about Norway and electric vehicles shouting “Let’s go America” gets me laughing.
Interrupting Kenan Thompson in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party, then Awkwafina during backyard archery practice, seems a little “random.” However, the most random ads in past years have been the most viral hits, so this style has been generally accepted and well received over the past few years of advertising (thanks in large part to the Super Bowl).
Furthermore, it plays into the common advertising practice of pulling in big names to help get your point across. Big names get attention, but they also have their own audiences via their own social channels and other business endeavors that love supporting them. I definitely don’t underestimate the value of these secondary touch points.
All of that said, the most effective part of this ad, for me, comes down to one simple statistic. “According to GM, only 4% of cars in the US are electric, compared to 50% in Norway.” That single comparison was the basis for the entire campaign. Of course it’s extreme, but I didn’t have to fact check those numbers after watching the ad only once. I simply remembered them.
Takeaway: Keep your message clear and simple, but if you come up with a goofy or humorous idea to help illustrate your point—lean into it, not away from it.
Indeed’s decision to advertise at the Super Bowl for the first time seems like perfect timing. With the unemployment at 6.3% in January, it was refreshing to see a message from a big platform showing solidarity with those searching for a new position, even if they didn’t want one.
The best part of the ad? Most of the footage in this video was stock. There was even a slight “upset” when someone from AdWeek noticed that a 1-second clip from their ad was used in another ad (for GuaranteedRate) later in the evening. While AdWeek used this to illustrate the importance of exclusivity rights, I would argue having original footage (especially during a pandemic when shooting schedules can go amiss with a single positive COVID test) isn’t as important as creating a meaningful story with stock footage, which I believe Indeed accomplished WAY better than GuaranteedRate.
Indeed layered in overlapping text, interposing contrasting images of hope and struggle, “ones starting out” and “the ones starting over” to remind the audience of a time in their own lives when they themselves were looking for a job—and how crucial Indeed probably was (or could have been) to that process.
Through this ad, Indeed effectively embeds itself into the job-hunting journey of each one of us, reminding us that they ARE the authority in online job listings. (I mean… they’re basically the “Kleenex” of the online job postings industry.)
The one thing I think they could have done better was show a little bit more of the platform interface. We see a glimpse at 0:19, but even that doesn’t show the full capabilities of what Indeed can do – and especially for seasoned workers having to start fresh for the first time in perhaps decades (aka never having used the internet to find jobs in the past), this could have been a helpful invitation for them to get more familiar with the idea of searching online.
This ad also illustrates the importance of understanding your audience. While Indeed is built on revenue generated from employers, it’s actually the candidates who are important to attract. This seems simple, but I’ve seen plenty of times where a brand’s message gets lost because they don’t truly understand how to generate ROI by focusing on the audience and personas of the people who will get them there.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to integrate stock footage into your imagery or campaign, as long as it fits with your mission and story.
Rocket Mortgage (x2)
Not everyone can afford a Super Bowl ad spot, let alone multiple. Aside from CBS and Paramount+, Rocket Mortgage was one of the only other brands that had more than one this year. My only complaint? They should have rounded it out and done a third. And yes, I have a reason (other than simply imagining them dropping another couple of million).
When you have a continuation of your campaign in a single sitting, it’s much better to propose a “beginning, middle, and end” with each, versus creating two variations of the same ad. (We DID see this with Paramount+, though I personally didn’t feel they quite hit the mark either.) Some might argue that Rocket Mortgage wanted to switch it up and show different content to encourage the viewer to pay attention twice instead of tuning out. However, we see that the overall interest for Rocket Mortgage peaked at 6pm and declined to about half of that at 8pm (which correlates with the general times of the two ads).
All of that said, I felt the concept of their message within the ads themselves was strong. It takes the simple idea of being “certain” of your mortgage loan eligibility and amount and takes it to the extreme, not unlike General Motors. It asks, “are you willing to be “pretty sure” about the biggest investment you’ll ever make in your life? Wouldn’t you rather be certain?” Given two ad spots, the advertising team or firm for Rocket Mortgage did a stellar job.
Takeaway: Think about the implications of what your service or product can provide to someone and use specific language to address these benefits in your marketing.
Bud Light Lemonade Seltzer
There were a LOT of ads and overall messages that touched on the dreadfulness that was 2020. But no other brand had the guts to do anything as bold as Bud Light—joke about it. (Speaking as a native St. Louisan, they can afford it.) But in a cheeky tie-in to their new Seltzer Lemonade line of products, they were able to hilariously articulate in a 30-second spot what most of us have been feeling for what feels like a decade: 2020 sucked for everyone.
While I loved all of the tributes to the grit of frontline workers; the resilience of the family unit; and the complicated relationships between communities; Bud Light’s commercial was bold enough to find some humor in it all, too.
As someone that copes with horrible situations with humor/comedy, I personally loved this ad and think they should have spent more time focusing on this (following the bride and groom after a disastrous wedding, corporate America being barraged with lemons, etc.) and less time paying a bunch of high-profile actors for their “Bud Light Legends” campaign. While I understand seltzers may be a harder sell, the concept for this campaign was simply stronger. And if you didn’t notice, they even embedded someone into the stands with a sign that read “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That’s some next-level sh*t.
Takeaway: Don’t assume your brand/marketing has to avoid hard subjects. Just think through how you handle them.
WeatherTech clearly defines its theories in their ad: people buy from people. Even though WeatherTech is a huge national corporation that sells a commodity, it doesn’t get lost on them that more and more people are “voting with their dollar” and supporting companies who they perceive as responsible, transparent, and who they feel a connection with for whatever reason.
WeatherTech showcased their diversity through a series of (hopefully) actual employee testimonials, each touching on the concept of pride in one’s work. This is a starkly American concept, so it’s no surprise that the overall theme of the campaign was #AmericanDreamAtWork.
That said, I have two qualms with this ad set.
1) Nobody in any of the factory shots were wearing a damn mask, which seems pretty out of place given the other ads this year, and the fact that their message focused so heavily on their people.
2) The conclusion could have been much stronger as a call to action to learn more about / support their products or their people, versus a few lines from a voiceover artist about America. If they would have scrapped the voiceover artist altogether and used some nice, well-rounded “parting words” at the end of the ad, I feel it could have been much more effective in communicating their overall message.
Takeaway: Use your employees to help humanize your products and tell your story.
No pun intended, but the 2021 Huggies Super Bowl ad was a breath of fresh air. It was light, fun, and concise—all the makings of a great 30-second ad spot.
So, so many brands misuse or avoid speaking in second person in video scripts. But this is a great example of the “You” perspective done right. Of course, their target audience is parents. But by speaking to “you, baby” Huggies makes itself a part of your “village,” while simultaneously playing with the idea that new parents are seeing the world anew through their child’s eyes.
Takeaway: Have a firm grasp on your target audience, and write your scripts to speak to them directly.
Toyota + Olympics
If you didn’t shed a tear at this commercial, it’s probably because you weren’t watching it. There were a lot of heartfelt messages of strength and unity throughout the Super Bowl ads this year, but Toyota did a wonderful job at not repeating everything the other guys said and creating content that broke the audience out of potential numbness towards pandemic messaging.
It’s important that we as marketers don’t forget that while the pandemic is still a major issue for the United States , it’s not the only challenge people are facing. We’re all figuring out ways to live our lives, invent new hobbies, and spend our time in productive ways that make us feel a part of something bigger. Enter the Olympics and Paralympics.
By following a single story of Paralympic Champion Jessica Long, Toyota was able to cut out a lot of noise and chaos that seemed to bookend their own ad spot, following the happiness and the struggles of Jessica’s life leading up to her success. Between this centralized sense of story and the quiet, confident audio engineering, Toyota came out with inarguably the most impactful ad of the night. It makes you feel good, empathize, and most of all, want to tune into the Paralympics for more.
Takeaway: Sharing stories of overcoming adversity (whether it’s your origin story, the way you help others, or both) will always take the W.
UberEats uses some great celebrity cameos to focus on an important message that we can all use a little reminder to shop small. Yes, UberEats is a national company, but they are simply a vehicle for supporting local businesses. So do your part and download an app!
By paying for big names to talk about small business, UberEats tells us they understand their place in the industry. They understand their audience, and they’re not afraid to have a little fun. Some of their past campaigns had me a little worried (somehow weirdly pitting celebrities against each other for no reason), but this one had much more clarity and centralized message.
Between subliminal messaging and TikTok dances, this one may be one that we look back on in a few decades and laugh at for a different reason. But for now, it’s pretty timely.
Takeaway: You don’t need to let your company’s size define your brand. You can go big or go small on your marketing (of course, given that you track the results).
So which one wins out?
Obviously, I’m not on the receiving end of any of these companies’ lead submissions. But what I can see is brand popularity on the web. In order to make a return on their investment, these companies not only needed to see a traffic spike on game day, but also in the days and weeks following (remember the importance of multiple touch points?). For now, here’s how they’re shaking out.
While you can see that Indeed is the highest searched out of the group in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, it’s Rocket Mortgage that had the highest level of popularity (search volume) during the game itself. Since, however, Indeed had the highest rate of increase in search volume, with GM a close second in rise-over-run.
What did you think about the Super Bowl ads this year? What new ideas did it inspire for your business or marketing strategy?
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